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When Walls Become Doorways: Creativity and the Transforming Illness

by Tobi Zausner
Harmony Books, New York, 2007
374 pp. $19 USD
ISBN: 978-0-307-23808-5.

Reviewed by Rob Harle


This is an inspiring, pleasurable, and at times, quite moving book. Tobi Zausner has done a huge amount of research to bring to the reader an astonishing number of personal stories concerning the transformative power of illness. When Walls Become Doorways discusses the ways in which art and creativity can turn misfortune and sometimes extreme illnesses into a positive life enhancing experience, not only for the person suffering, but for others who resonate with the artworks. "Knowing that someone else has triumphed proves it can be done and makes it possible for you. One of the main goals of this book is to provide many role models" (p. 174).

Zausner was herself diagnosed with an extremely aggressive form of ovarian cancer and given little chance of surviving longer than a year. Through medical treatment, meditation including Soaring Crane Qigong, and sheer determination she survived. This book is partly her own story, partly the stories of others with illnesses ranging from mild disabilities to quadriplegia, but mostly it is a story of overcoming obstacles through creativity to make the most of any situation. "Illness has profoundly altered my creativity, but this response is not unique to me. Creativity is a basic human capacity that extends across racial and cultural boundaries" (p. 4).

The book has 18 chapters arranged into five parts, together with Zausner's personal introduction, extensive reference notes and good index. Part 1 - Creativity, Illness and Transformation discusses what constitutes a transforming illness and ways to turn poor health into such a transforming illness. Part 2 — Illness in Early Life looks at congenital health problems, childhood illnesses and major accidents and how these can bring about extraordinary achievements and world changing artwork. Part 3 — Learning, Seeing and Hearing investigates abnormal ways of seeing the world, not hearing the world around us and how various learning (dis)abilities can be powerful precursors and aids to creating truly amazing individuals with equally amazing works of art. Part 4 — The Challenges of Adulthood discusses how illnesses and accidents in adulthood challenge the will power of individuals to not only survive but to get over self-pity and make the best of what abilities they have. Part 5 — Creativity and the Response to Illness looks at how illness can change individual identity, how to persevere when all seems impossible and finally how to use illness to help others.

Each chapter presents numerous "case studies" (more personal stories, really) of both famous artists and not so famous contemporary artists. This personal touch adds a "hard-to-put-down" element to the book as each intriguing, and sometimes almost unbelievable story, unfolds. Zausner explains the technical terms she uses, particularly medical terms, in plain language which makes this book suitable reading for virtually all ages and levels of education. Little known health facts about such geniuses as Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Degas, Warhol and Leonardo da Vinci, to mention just a few, unfold with a peaceful flow that is a characteristic of the book as a whole. Chapter 7 will be of special interest to the Leonardo community, as this chapter is devoted entirely to Leonardo da Vinci, explaining how his learning difficulties (specifically ADHD and dyslexia) influenced his art, science and expression of genius. Zausner’s research has uncovered some rather interesting and previously unknown aspects of da Vinci’s health.

One minor criticism is that most of the illnesses discussed throughout the book are of a physical nature. I had expected there would be a smattering of some famous artists (other than Van Gogh) with severe mental illness such as Antonin Artaud for example. Also most of the art concerns the more traditional disciplines of painting, drawing, and sculpture. As Zausner explains concerning the latter point, the book somewhat mirrors her own experiences as a painter, rather than say as a dancer or performance artist. Neither of these points detracts from the overall impact and importance of the book.

There are no illustrations at all which at first struck me as somewhat unusual; then I found Zausner's clever way of handling, what would have amounted to a huge number of images. Go to her web site (www.tobizausner.com), click on the book title, and there in alphabetical order are links to the various artist's web sites which show their works and details. This has the advantage of not favouring one artist over another and allows the reader to select whichever artist interests them most; it does of course require access to the Internet. It is a rather sobering thought that despite advertising hype to the contrary, there are large numbers of people who do not have internet access at home, or who are computer illiterate, especially members of the older population.

When Walls Become Doorways is infused with a gentle, caring approach, as Zausner believes, correctly in my opinion, that those who have overcome seemingly insurmountable health problems and produced stunning works of art are an inspiration for all of us. "Artists with transforming illnesses are heroes of creativity and role models for us all. Working despite innumerable hardships, they shape the essence of our culture and create great beauty in our lives" (p. ix). Tobi Zausner is one such heroine and through this book, and her own powerful and deeply moving paintings, she has helped make this world a better and more beautiful place to live. Regardless of your interest in art or health, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.



Updated 1st April 2008

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